Why AT&T is the real winner at CES

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HTC are big. HTC are getting bigger with the Titan 2. HTC are growing the Titan 2 with a 16 megapixel camera. HTC are growing the Titan 2 with a 16 megapixel camera because AT&T think it's a good idea to have an alternative flagship. But hold on... Nokia are back in America. Nokia are back in America with a super fast LTE handset because AT&T would quite like another hero phone. Do you get the feeling AT&T have done really well out of the recent Windows Phone announcements?

The HTC Titan 2

It's not all one sided, but the relationships between AT&T and the two handset manufacturers will be complicated, and benefits will flow in both directions. However, there's no doubt that AT&T, and US operators in general, have far more leverage in any negotiation than other networks around the world. And that means that AT&T have used this factor to put themselves in a very strong position to divide and conquer the handset and mobile OS companies, leaving them at the top of the heap.

Consider this. The Nokia 900 Lumia to all intents and purposes is Nokia's flagship US phone, and arguably the standard bearer for the second generation of Windows Phone handsets. There is a marketing budget being used that is higher than the GDP of some countries. Yet just a few hours before Nokia took to the stage, who should pop up in the AT&T keynote but HTC. With "the first LTE Windows Phone."

You're not telling me that was a co-incidence, are you?

One of these is not the same

By the same token, Nokia would not have wanted anything to take the wind out their sails. I don't think Microsoft would have wanted Nokia diverted either (although there is an argument that Redmond would want to keep HTC on board with Windows Phone as it gets squeezed in the Android market). No, I'd be happy putting a few of those Vegas casino chips down that AT&T made sure HTC got there first simply to put Nokia in their place - as a supplier to a company higher up the digital food chain in America.

Even if this is just happenstance, it does feel like the sort of move a US carrier would make.

It goes beyond the two Windows Phone devices as well. AT&T announced eight different devices at CES that will work on their new 4G LTE network, two running Windows Phone (from two manufacturers), and six running Android (three Samsungs, one Sony, and two from Pantech, as the company moves up the price points to embrace Android after its budget handsets). No one manufacturer can say they have preferred service, and each one of them could be "replaced" by another. AT&T could happily have the Titan 2 as the lead handset, or the 'Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket LTE' (although that feels more like the US network has been playing too much Words With Friends); tablets and slates, budget handsets, even the addition of the Sony Xperia Ion with its Playstation Certified gaming so that the Xbox Live crowd didn't have it all their own way.

Don't forget AT&T have the iPhone 4S in the mix as well.

Nokia Lumia 900 on AT&T

It might seem a bit clichéd, but the real winner out of all the handset announcements, especially the Windows Phone handsets, is AT&T. They have handsets at every significant retail price point, they've been incredibly even-handed in parcelling out support to the manufacturers, they have all the mobile operating systems covered, and they've ceded as little ground to their partners as possible. That's not only smart business for the retail market, but smart strategy for the long term, as AT&T keep everyone involved all spinning around each other.

Assuming that AT&T is looking to bring its partners to a roughly equal footing, this bodes well for Windows Phone. AT&T needs something to be alongside Android in the marketplace so the horsetrading between the manufacturers can continue. Given that, expect the marketing push from Microsoft and Nokia to continue, expect AT&T to fully embrace it, and expect HTC to be brought along for the ride on the rising tide that will lift Windows Phone during 2012.

Of course, the handset makers aren't forced into this relationship, and they get a lot of benefit from it as well. The Nokia Lumia 900 is the flagship handset on AT&T's LTE network, and the one which will get the heavy promotion. Nokia's Chris Weber has indicated it will be working with each US carrier to give them a leading handset, and as these tailored handsets arrive from Nokia, from HTC, even from the Samsung Windows Phone departments, they'll be welcomed, packaged up, and sold as quickly as possible.